L. and her gelding, Andante, are boarders here. I always ask how the ride went as they return to the barn. One day L. tilted her head and said he’d complained about her hands. Horses are always right about hands. It’s frustrating when you listen to your horse and hear something you don’t like. Recently, I asked about the ride as they untacked. Pensive, she said, after a pause. It wasn’t a word she’d used before, but it might be the best description ever, if you’re a horse.
This Belgian-TB cross has been at my barn for most of his life. He was insecure in the beginning, terrified of vets, and sometimes spooky under saddle. L. had her fair share of unplanned dismounts. Like most horses, he didn’t start out steady. It takes time for a horse and rider to find their true stride. It’s been my good fortune to watch them over the years, the third person in the arena. It’s us learning from him now.
Some folks believe that draft breeds are slow, stubborn, or maybe not as bright as other breeds. Pensive is the right word. Andante is a thinker, he likes taking the time to reason things out. He might move slowly at first, seem to sound it out in his head almost. He gets quiet but he isn’t distracted or being evasive. He’s relaxed and focused; in a mental place where he is able to learn. We know that when we give him the time he needs to be comfortable with something new, he is responsive and light, often volunteering even more than we ask. Going forward, he remembers it with reliable calmness.
It isn’t just draft breeds who like time to think. It’s light drafts like Fjords, Friesians, and Vanners. Ponies and Appaloosas are on the list, and donkeys and mules are famous for hating to be rushed. We think they’re stubborn or hard-headed, often giving a second louder cue just as they were about to do what was asked, but the second cue almost feels like a correction for answering, so they go quiet, losing confidence.
Some breeds like Arabians and Thoroughbreds seem to like to answer quick, almost as if they are guessing and want to get it over with, but if the horse is tense in his body, isn’t that answer slick with anxiety? Wouldn’t we get a better answer if we pretended they were draft breeds and encouraged a slow answer in the beginning, also?
How much time is reasonable for a horse to respond to a cue? I notice I pause in my mind now to consider my own question. I pause as I form my words because I don’t want to blather out my first thought or leap to a false conclusion. I hope to be clear and give the right answer. I notice a certain pensiveness before I answer and I’m not the one balancing a human on my back.
Is a quicker answer from a horse the better answer? Or is the speed of a horse’s response to a request an answer in itself? If he understands what he is being asked, a horse will usually oblige willingly, even quickly by our judgment. If a horse doesn’t answer a question he knows, our first thought must be for his soundness. Reluctance is a sign of pain. Is he not answering but frozen looking to the distance? Give him time, he sees something we don’t, and repeating the cue louder isn’t going to improve our vision or make his concern go away.
Most of all, if a horse pauses in the process of learning something new, the investment in giving him time to think and volunteer an answer will engage him in the process. He will have a positive experience problem solving if we allow him the time to find the answer himself and it will build his confidence. As you wait, remember that teacher who made biology interesting or gave you a love of reading. With a nod to their patience with you, don’t assume your horse is stubborn or lazy. Seeing the worst human traits in a horse says more about our intelligence than theirs.
If we push for a fast answer and the horse freezes a bit, maybe afraid of being wrong or just nervous, it should make us wonder if the problem might not be ours. Maybe we need to learn to resist being hurried, too.
How can you tell your horse isn’t thinking? His eyes have a deathly stillness. His body feels hollow. It’s as if he is playing dead. Horses don’t think when they’re afraid.
How can you tell your horse is thinking? That’s a stupid question. I’m supposed to say there are no stupid questions, but just look at him. His eyes are soft, and his ears are inquisitive as he breathes out softly. If you cannot recognize the intelligence in a horse’s face, regardless of breed, it’s you who are stubborn or lazy or just untrainable.
A few years ago, L. and Andante were a bit stuck. I suggested perhaps it was time to evolve their groundwork, it hadn’t changed in years. L. made the routine more interesting but Andante changed things up, too. He began lifting his hoof on the mounting block, like a slow-motion pawing. We didn’t ask. In the beginning, L. moved the block to his side but then he’d turn and do it again. Soon he was stretching both legs on his own and L. was lightly scratching his coronary band. We didn’t understand at first, but he trained us. Was he resisting her ride? In a few moments, he stood square and she was in the saddle. It was more like a team pep talk. He did it at horse shows with strange mounting blocks just the same. Horse conversations are always behaviors and not words, but that doesn’t mean their body voice is less informative.
It’s been a brutally cold week in Colorado. A water tub in the turnout pen froze solid and it took help to tip it and get the huge ice cube out. It’ll take a month to melt. That night, as it was getting dark and I was bringing horses in, my toes were stinging in my warmest boots. The other horses were already slurping mush and digging into fresh hay bags. Andante was the last. I don’t use a halter; he surely knows where we’re going. On this bone-chilling night, he paused and pawed the top of the ice block. I stopped walking and turned. He lifted his huge hoof up again, and rested it, his ears forward.
As I moved to his shoulder, “Really, you want to talk now?” If horses have taught me anything it’s that dullness and impatience are the language of a lesser mind.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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